Friday, April 4, 2014

Financial Friday: 10 Tips for Spending Less on Groceries

I always thought that our spending habits when it came to groceries were pretty normal (maybe because I live in a poor college town full of poor college students), but based on some of the comments coming in lately asking how we manage to spend so little on groceries every month, I guess I'm a little more unusual than I thought.

Disclaimer: There really probably isn't anything new or exciting about these suggestions. These are just the ways that we personally manage to keep our grocery budget between $115-200 a month (for two people).

Second Disclaimer: we do eat out once a week for our date night (on Friday), so it's not like we're anti-spending-money. Just had to get that out there.

Disclaimers aside, it took me a few years to get this grocery bill thing under control--when Matt and I were first engaged and he was coming over to my apartment for pretty much every meal but breakfast, I went crazy on the grocery bill (mostly just because I wanted to impress him with my burgeoning cooking skills). I remember that for those first few months of engagement and marriage, I was easily spending $300-350 a month on groceries for the two of us. It wasn't until we'd been married about a year and were both jobless for about 4 months that I started to really crack down on our spending, especially when it came to groceries. During that time, I learned how to be "the crazy coupon lady" and learned to basically live on rice and beans. There were times during that summer that we only spent $75 a month on food.

Now our money isn't so very tight like it was during that unemployed summer, but the frugal habits have still managed to carry over (for the most part)---I don't really coupon like crazy anymore (I coupon hardly at all, in fact), and I've allowed myself about double of what I did during that lean time when we could only afford $75/month on groceries, but we still keep it pretty cheap apparently.

So here you go---my tips for keeping your grocery budget at a minimum with minimal effort:

10 Tips for Saving Money on Groceries

1. Cut out the soda.

One of the first habits I got into when I started my teaching job was drinking Diet Dr. Pepper every day in order to "get through" the stress of it all. I justified the money spent on soda by saying that it kept me sane and happy. Last November, my doctor told me that it was likely the soda was part of the reason I had so many stomach problems, so I quit cold-turkey. Not only has my stomach felt better than it has in years, but I also managed to cut an easy $30-40 off our grocery bill. Win-win.

2. In fact, limit buying drinks period. 

While we will always have milk on hand, we rarely have any other drink in the house, including juice (although last month, we splurged a bit and got some). While we're not perfect at following this rule, I know from plenty of experience that if you train yourself to just drink water with your meals, you can save quite a bit of cash.

3. Cook 95% of your own meals.

Each month, we eat about 100 meals. Matt and I usually only eat 5 (or so) of those meals at restaurants or take-out places. By cooking our own meals most of the time, we are almost guaranteeing that we'll spend less money than had we gone out for that same meal (plus we're healthier for it).

Also, I've found that eating the same thing for breakfast every day is where we really cut costs--with our busy lifestyle, we just don't have time to sit down and eat breakfast in the morning, so I just make up a packet of instant oatmeal in a plastic cup and take it with me on my 35-minute commute to work. (Matt, by choice, usually skips breakfast.)

4. Go meatless as much as possible.

Meat prices are constantly on the rise, so choose to eat meatless as much as possible. We have several go-to meatless options that I can make anytime we don't have any kind of meat in the house (which perhaps I'll post on for a different Financial Friday). Most weeks, we eat about 3 days' worth of meatless meals.

5. Limit "snack" food (especially processed snack food)

I was trained not to be a snacker growing up---we always ate 3 solid meals that were generally plenty big enough to last us until the next one, and the only "snack" foods my mom had in the house were healthy (like fruit), which prevented me from becoming a big snacker. Those habits have carried over to my adult life, which means that you'll almost never find too many snack foods (esp. processed snack foods) around our place. In fact, the only super-processed foods we have on hand usually are tortilla chips and salt crackers.

6. Buy in bulk and stock up your pantry.

It is this tip that has probably made the biggest impact on our grocery spending. When I was in college and had 3-5 roommates at any given time, I had such limited cupboard and fridge space that I couldn't build up much in the way of a pantry. Since getting married and moving into our own little place, we have invested in a huge floor-to-ceiling heavy-duty shelf that can house hundreds of canned goods and other pantry items. We wait until case lot sales (like the one going on this week at Smith's!) to purchase these types of goods, and we only have to do it once or twice a year. During those months of case lot sales, my grocery bill will go up to probably $250 for the month, but it's worth it in order to have plenty in the pantry.

Also, it's important to actually plan meals around what's in the pantry. Many of my quick weeknight meals are based off of items that are always on our shelves, and many of my meals that have a longer prep time simply require me to buy a few fresh things at the beginning of the week from the grocery store. It is mainly because of this tip that our grocery bill is kept so low because we only need to purchase $30-40/week of fresh food to accompany what we already have on hand.

Last note on pantry stuff---if you can't afford all of it at once (we certainly couldn't), then just build it up gradually : spend $20-30 extra a month to go towards pantry staples, and soon you won't even have to add to it unless you run out of something.

7. Shop at the same place most weeks (especially a place that offers rewards).

When I was a hardcore couponer, I totally would have disagreed with this tip, but that's because I had the time and energy to go to several different stores to get the best deals. Now that I work 50+ hours a week, I don't have that luxury. Shopping at the same store means not only that I know where everything is, but I also know when something is a good price or not. Also, at a place like Smith's (which is where I do 99% of my grocery shopping), they send you coupons pretty much weekly in the mail that are tailored to recent purchases that you've made. They also offer digital coupons that you can load right onto your shopper's card that ring up automatically at checkout. As if that weren't enough, you also get 10 cents off of gasoline for every 100 points you rack up in the store.

So although I don't hardcore coupon anymore, I do clip out the pertinent coupons from what they've sent me in the mail, and I load up pretty much all the digital coupons they offer onto my card, which is basically the laziest way to coupon ever. (And bonus---Smith's "doubles up" on coupons, so if you have a paper coupon from the mail and a digital coupon for the same item, you get both values deducted from the price of the item).

The thing I like especially about Smith's is that in some of their coupons they send by mail, they'll give you coupons for free stuff (like free bread, eggs, cereal, or even frozen fruit), and they also will send you coupons on produce (like $1/off $4 worth of produce) or meat, which are hard to save money on when buying from grocery stores.

8. Base your meals on what's on sale.

This one can be hard sometimes (esp. since I'm not always super good at planning out meals in advance), but I will almost never buy something unless it's for a good price. Take the other week, for example---I really wanted asparagus, but when I went to the store, it wasn't on sale that week. Instead of spending $3.99/lb. for asparagus, I ended up buying some other vegetables that were on sale. Lo and behold, the next week the asparagus was on sale for 99 cents, and my craving for bargains AND asparagus was satisfied.

It pays to wait and be flexible, people.

9. Limit treats.

This tip is not only good for your health, it's good for your wallet---when I started looking a bit more into clean eating last year, I read a tip about only eating the sweets that you were willing to make yourself. While I'm not perfect about following that rule, I'd say that 90% of the sweets we eat are from recipes I've baked up in our kitchen, which has saved us a bunch of money (especially when we were able to not buy ice cream for about 4-5 months, a streak which ended last week, lol).

10. Don't waste food.

It wasn't until I started really watching how much we wasted that I realized how much money we were throwing away every month on spoiled, expired food. Before you go shopping, take some time to really go through your fridge and rotate things around so you can see what you really need. Before making any meal, don't just ask yourself what sounds good or what's easiest---go to your fridge and see what needs to be used up the quickest. I believe that it was this tip almost more than any other that allowed us to get our grocery bill down to less than $140 last month.

What tips do you have for saving money on groceries?


  1. Great tips! I'm excited to see your list of go to recipes you use. I think the biggest factor that adds to our outrageous grocery bill is my constant need to get creative in the kitchen. Eating the same breakfast is SUCH a good money saving tip and can help you stay healthy too, especially with a breakfast like otmeal

  2. These are great tips! When we had two extra mouths to feed, we stopped buying juice, soda and especially water bottles. We invested in one of those Brita filters. There was nothing more frustrating that seeing half full (or half empty) bottles sitting all over the house!

  3. These are really good tips!

    My husband has definitely taught me the #10 of don't waste food. We rarely ever ever throw anything out now and I love that.


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